Geelong

ImageMindful that my time in Australia is running out, I went on a sightseeing trip to Geelong last week. It’s the second biggest city in Victoria and only an hour from Melbourne by train so, considering that I’ve been living here for well over a year, it’s surprising that I didn’t check it out sooner.

I went for a walk along the waterfront following the trail of Jan Mitchell’s bollards, carved and painted to look like people. This led me up to the Botanic Gardens, where I snapped a pair that I at first took to be a bride and groom. After reading the information plaque I discovered that the gentleman is in fact Daniel Bunce, the first curator of the gardens. He returned from an expedition across Australia with Sturt’s Desert Pea, which he planted in the gardens. The attractive wildflowers were highly sought after by the ladies of Geelong for their pressed flower collections and the guilty looking woman by Bunce’s side is concealing some of the desert peas and a flower press behind her back.

There is an entertaining post over at The Friends of Geelong Botanic Gardens blog about how some of the sneaky local women even went so far as to try smuggling rare flowers out of the gardens under their hooped petticoats!

Image

Image

Normal Service Resumed

So, where did I leave you? That’s right…stranded in Perth while I continued gallivanting around WA then the South Island of New Zealand.

Sorry about that. I really am very sorry.

I’m back in Melbourne now and planning to stay here for a long time. Even though I don’t have an internet connection in the house, I think it will be easier to stay on top of things (blogging, I mean) now that I’m not moving all over the place anymore.

Let me catch you up on what I’ve been up to: in Perth I had an amazing run of good luck. I got a job and a room in a flat for the exact length of time that I needed them. I found a great group of people to hang around with and got back in touch with some friends from school and Edinburgh and Russia(!) that I hadn’t seen for ages.

The weather was amazing, so good in fact that I think it has ruined me. In my last week in Perth when it finally got a bit colder, I morphed into one of those whiny British people that wears their summer jacket from home in winter in Australia and complains how cold it is. It was 16 degrees. Freezing!

I grumbled about going to New Zealand, where I’d heard there would be snow. Sure it would be nice to go on holiday with my parents, but why couldn’t we have flown north to the sunshine? (You see? Whiny.)

But New Zealand was beautiful in winter: all snow capped mountains and mirror lakes. It was worth feeling as though we were living inside a refrigerator. We went to all the places you might expect: Queenstown, Milford Sound, Dunedin and Christchurch, which were all interesting and beautiful in their own ways, but the surprise star of the trip was Oamaru. Have you even heard of it? The only reason we stopped there was because it was midway between Dunedin and Christchurch which made it a good place to overnight.

It was awesome! It’s the home of New Zealand’s Steampunk Headquarters!!! How cool is that? (It also begs the question, where are the other Steampunk Headquarters in the world?). The Victorian town centre had a European feel and was full of arty shops that sold homemade soaps and hand bound notebooks and locally made jewellery. Alas, during the winter months the Steampunk HQ and many of the shops and cafés were only open at weekends. We arrived on a Monday so just missed out.

My only slight consolation was to imagine that all the business and workshop owners were occupied with their artistic pursuits. I’d hate to think that they were sunbathing in Bali while we gazed forlornly through their darkened shop windows, our breath condensing on the cold glass.

I’ll just have to go back in summer.

West Coast Road Trip Part 5: Dinosaur Footprints and Rocky Outcrops

I didn’t realise how much I appreciated curious rock formations until I came to Australia. On the way up the west coast we stopped off at the Pinnacles, columns of golden limestone clustered together in the desert; in Broome we hopped over stacked discs of red rock at Gantheaume Point.

We’d driven out there hoping to see the fossilised dinosaur footprints in the bay but since the tide was high they weren’t visible. I really liked the idea of being somewhere where ancient history hadn’t just shaped the landscape but physically stamped it. Even the characteristic red colour of the earth had its origins in prehistoric times when heavy rain soaked through to the bedrock and dissolved the iron. The water percolated back up to the surface resulting in iron rich red soil.

By the time the next low tide came around we had somewhere else to be. We joined the gathering crowd at Town Beach to watch the Staircase to the Moon, a natural phenomenon where moonlight reflected off the sand flats looks like rungs of a ladder leading up to the moon. There must be places all over the world where you can see this effect but in Broome it’s a big deal. After watching the moon rise we wandered round a nearby market where there was a lot of Staircase-to-the-Moon- inspired jewellery for sale, pendants made from silver bars topped with pearls, for example.

The following day, Dave and I said our goodbyes. The original plan had been to go all the way up to Darwin and then back to Perth via an interior road but since I had run out of money and Dave had lost faith in the campervan after the Coral Bay incident, we decided to call it quits after Broome. I flew back to Perth to look for work and Dave arrived back in the campervan a few days later.

West Coast Road Trip Part 4: Big Moon Over the Highway

Before I began road tripping in Australia, I relished the idea of driving on long stretches of highway through the empty outback, the road in front of me like a shimmering oil slick streaking towards the horizon. I couldn’t wait to be in that enormous landscape, a tiny person in a tiny car with nothing but sand as far as the eye could see.

That was until I drove north towards Port Hedland on the North West Coastal Highway. I nearly expired from boredom. Don’t ask me why, because I managed the road from Port Augusta to Coober Pedy without a problem and it was even longer and more monotonous than this one. Perhaps because by the time we were approaching Port Hedland we’d already been on the road for eight days? Maybe one week of red earth and stunted trees is the most I can handle. I was almost hoping a kangaroo would dive nose first in front of the car just to give me something to do.

We were maybe about 30km away from the next rest stop and I couldn’t wait to get off the road and lie down for the night. Behind me in the mirror I could see the sun was setting. Ahead there was nothing but road and red, and a curious, glowing pink mound. Some kind of man-made construction, I thought, for its curved top was far too smooth to be natural. But then it began to rise up from the ground, gradually, like a hot air balloon, and I realised it was the moon, enormous and pink. I have never seen anything like it before in my life, although Dave told me that the moon often appears magnified when it’s low on the horizon.

Moments ago I had been so weary of the landscape, thinking that there was no more pleasure left for me in outback driving. Now, watching the moon rise and deflate and change in hue from pink to yellow, I felt as though I could stay on that road forever. Too soon we reached the rest stop and the moon went back to normal, a hard white disc in the sky.

West Coast Road Trip Part 3: Breakdown in Coral Bay

We were half way up the west coast when our campervan broke down. We tried to start it up one morning and it just wouldn’t go. Luckily it happened in Coral Bay where I had a good phone signal and there was a mechanic only half an hour away.

He looked inside the engine and whistled. There were two wires attached to the battery with alligator clips. “Look at that! The positive wire has been touching the metal casing. It’s welded itself on. That’s how you burn a car to the ground.”

But that wasn’t what was preventing the campervan from starting. The mechanic was stumped. He fished around inside the engine pulling out wires and looking for fuses. Eventually he left with assurances that he would be back once he’d got hold of a wiring diagram for our vehicle.

We had been planning on spending a few hours snorkelling on the Ningaloo Reef but now we had the whole day at our disposal. Boy am I glad we had that extra time. It was amazing, like being inside a giant aquarium.

We swam through clouds of tiny, iridescent blue fish that floated up from coral towers. Pancake flat neon yellow fish, spiky lionfish and metallic green parrot fish flitted in and out of the reef, oblivious as we drifted on the surface of the water above them.

In places the coral bloomed from the seabed like huge stone lettuces. Sometimes it was piled up like stacks of petrified firewood, or bulged into cratered domes like brains suspended in formaldehyde. Fish of all shapes, sizes and colours darted through their curious playground, wriggling into holes and diving under arches.

We returned to the caravan park salt crusted and exhilarated shortly before the mechanic reappeared. This time he was able to find what was wrong with the engine and fix it.

The next day we could continue with our adventure.

West Coast Road Trip Part 2: Dolphins at Monkey Mia

The next morning we got up early and snuck quietly out of the parking bay where we had spent the night. That is, we got out as quietly as we could in our ancient, growling campervan.

We refuelled and headed back to Geraldton, lesson learnt. After that, we always made sure we had plenty of fuel and water and I regularly texted my parents to update them on our itinerary.

The following night we stayed in a 24 hour rest stop at the side of the highway. These rest stops are the best kind of free camping you can get on the west coast: you don’t have to stray off course to get to them, nor do you need a four wheel drive to access them. There are public toilets there and plenty of people around for company.

We made it to Monkey Mia on our third day on the road. This is a beach resort where dolphins swim up to the shore three times a day to be fed by the rangers. The beach was also visited by pelicans and emus.

West Coast Road Trip Part 1: Lost on the Road to Mt Magnet

It was night time, we were lost on a red dirt road out in the middle of nowhere and we were almost out of petrol and water.

To our left, red lights glowed in the dark like scattered garnets on a velvet cloth. The flickering light told us they were not streetlights but flames. The series of small fires in the neighbouring field were too close together and there were too many of them to be campfires. It was eerie. All we needed now was to hear a report on the radio that a madman with a hook for a hand had escaped from a nearby lunatic asylum and we would know that it was all over.

It was only day one of our road trip. How did it all go so horribly wrong?

What happened is this: in my zeal to save money, when we stopped to refuel at a highway roadhouse I only half filled the tank. The petrol here was 15 cents a litre dearer than in Perth and I began to panic when I saw the rate at which the numbers on the petrol pump were flapping up.

“We’ll just refill properly in Geraldton tomorrow,” I said.

Another one of my great money saving ideas was to only camp in free campsites. We consulted our guide to camping in WA and found one a short way along the Mt Magnet road.

Taking the turnoff just outside Geraldton, we passed a sign warning that there was little drinking water available north of here. “We’ll get water in town tomorrow too,” I said.

The thing is, in Australia, what looks like a very short distance on a map is actually a very big distance on the road. We drove more than 60 km before we found what we thought was the turnoff for the campsite, a rutted red dirt road that crossed the train tracks and disappeared into the darkness.

The campervan juddered and shuddered over the uneven surface taking us further and further away from the main road.

There was no mobile reception and it occurred to me that no one would ever think of looking for us so far from the highway if we broke down now. Or if we ran out of fuel.

“How many kilometres have we done now?” I asked Dave.

“520” he said. “Do you know how many we were on when we stopped for gas?”

“350”

We were both silent for a moment while we did some calculations, because you see, the fuel gauge on the campervan didn’t work. We reckoned we could go 400km on a full tank and the plan was to reset the counter to zero every time we filled up. But since I had only partially refilled the tank last time we stopped…”I think we can go 150km on what I put in,” I said.

“And we’ve already gone 170km since then,” Dave shot back.

Uh oh.

We decided to get back onto the Mt Magnet Road and to try to get to the next town, which was 20km away.

We made it all right but, wouldn’t you know it? Both of the town’s petrol stations were closed for the night.